Guest editorial by Chris Hand

Tommy’s Jacksonville

Image courtesy of Tommy Hazouri.

Tommy Hazouri has achieved something unprecedented in the half-century history of the consolidated City of Jacksonville (COJ). He is the first leader to serve as Duval Legislative Delegation Chair, Mayor, Duval County School Board Chair and now City Council President.

As his Council presidency begins, Hazouri is positioned for another unprecedented achievement: Leading the COJ to extend the benefits of consolidation to all Jacksonville citizens and neighborhoods. With heightened public awareness and advocacy about systemic racial inequality, President Hazouri and his Council colleagues have an opportunity – and an obligation – to address one of the worst local disparities: The 53-year-old unfulfilled promises of the 1967 city-county consolidation campaign.

In a previous column for The Jaxson, I traced the history and discussed the impact of these unfulfilled promises. Should anyone try to argue otherwise, there is no doubt that promises were made. Long-time civil rights advocate, community organizer and public official Alton Yates recalled that “the promises were very, very explicit. The campaign targeted problems people were experiencing and sold people on the notion that these were the kinds of problems that consolidation would fix. People were told paving of streets and improvement of water and sewer systems would be a result if we consolidated the city and county governments.”

President Hazouri and his colleagues are off to a positive start in their efforts to fulfill these promises. In November, Duval County voters will decide whether to adopt a half-cent sales tax to address more than $2 billion in school construction and maintenance needs. On June 10, Hazouri announced the creation of a new Special Committee on Social Justice and Community Investment “to establish programs and policies which serve to eradicate systemic bias as well as honor the unfulfilled promises of consolidation.” He appointed former Council President and incoming Finance Committee Chair Matt Carlucci and former Duval County School Board Chair and incoming Rules Committee Chair Brenda Priestly Jackson to lead the committee, and asked members to “propose policy recommendations” and “complement any proposals with definitive, practical action plans.”

Given that presidential direction, below are possible strategic considerations, policy approaches and dedicated funding sources the Special Committee and full Council may wish to consider in their efforts.

Designing the Strategy

James Weldon Johnson Academic and Career Training Center in Northwest Jacksonville

While some Council members and community leaders are laudably eager to start improving schools, paving roads, building sidewalks, replacing septic tanks, and enhancing drainage immediately, a sustained reversal of neighborhood inequality will also require an effective, long-term strategic framework. My last column outlined five principles to help guide the effort.

1. Define the Mission

Former Council President and former Duval County School Board Chair Warren Jones framed the goal in terms of the benefits and shortcomings of consolidation. “I think consolidation has made all of the consolidated government more efficient and reduced the duplication of services,” Jones said in 2018. “The challenge today is how we provide those services in a fair manner to reach those neighborhoods that believe they have been left out. It’s going to take a mayor, council, and business community committed to make those capital improvements and improvements in human capital to turn those neighborhoods around.”

2. Make the Case

While the promised yet unfulfilled extension of services and infrastructure to all neighborhoods is reason enough to launch this effort, advocates will also need to build a holistic business case that features the full array of benefits. For example, infrastructure can have a transformative effect on neighborhoods. As Warren Jones explained, “[t]hose kinds of improvements give pride in the neighborhood. People want to maintain their homes. It encourages private dollars to invest in those neighborhoods.” Beyond the neighborhood impacts, replacing failing septic tanks with water and sewer systems boost public health and protect environmental treasures like the St. Johns River and its tributaries. Building sidewalks promotes pedestrian safety, especially in areas where children walk to school.

Additionally, the work will have economic benefits. In 2018, then-former JEA CEO Paul McElroy described the impact of replacing septic tanks with three words: “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” McElroy opined that septic tank removal was “the most labor-intensive infrastructure on the planet” and would provide substantial employment. Former Mayor and JAX Chamber Chair John Delaney observed that “economic development stops at the end of a sewer line.” While infrastructure is not the only factor required for economic success, communities almost certainly cannot reach their full economic potential without it. This is especially true for neighborhoods hoping to develop a thriving business sector. As Warren Jones noted, Northwest Jacksonville has struggled to attract businesses in part because one of its most important thoroughfares, U.S. 1, lacks vital infrastructure. Above-ground septic tanks cause visual blight that discourages business growth.

3. Think Broadly

Those who lead the effort to keep promises would be wise to look through a telescope rather than a microscope. While water and sewer lines and the connections to those lines, paved roads, and sidewalks are the most discussed forms of unkept promises, some leaders argue that infrastructure will only help if other needs are also addressed. Though former Mayor Alvin Brown and former Council President Bill Gulliford had their disagreements at City Hall, they are united in their strong belief that affordable housing must be part of the solution. “Affordable housing is critical to the future of this city and other cities,” said Gulliford in 2018. “You need to be proactive. If you’re going to bring neighborhoods back, you must have affordable housing.”

4. Planning is Key

Any serious effort will require sustainability. Elected officials and community stakeholders should identify the exact needs and develop a comprehensive plan to meet those needs. While much of the key information probably exists in the city’s five-year CIP, bicycle and pedestrian priorities, Public Works and JEA water and sewer project lists, and other sources, the successful fulfillment of past promises will require a consolidated and prioritized master plan and schedule to guide elected officials and keep the work on track.

5. Dedicate Funding.

Even the best planning may be for naught if the City does not identify a dedicated funding source. Fulfilling the unkept promises will not be an inexpensive proposition. As Alton Yates put it, “this is not a $10 million problem or a $30 million problem. It is probably a billion-dollar problem.” While these principles provide a possible strategic framework for fulfilling the promises of Jacksonville consolidation, ultimate success requires permanent policy change and long-term investment. Current City Council members should consider amending our fundamental governing document – the City of Jacksonville Charter – to ensure neighborhood equality in a way that transcends future mayoral administrations and city councils.

Changing city policy

The intersection of West Third and Fairfax Streets in New Town. Located roughly one mile outside of Downtown Jacksonville, New Town is an example of a historic neighborhood that still lacks comprehensive sidewalk connectivity.

Revise the Neighborhood Bill of Rights and Place it in the City of Jacksonville Charter

In 1995, the Jacksonville City Council enacted Ordinance 95-247-106, the “Consolidated City of Jacksonville Neighborhood Bill of Rights.” Recognizing that “Jacksonville’s many and varied neighborhoods are the lifeblood of the community, providing most residents with their clearest sense of identity with and participation in the communal life of the City,” Council adopted a series of guidelines to govern the working relationships between neighborhood organizations and City of Jacksonville departments and employees.

  • Prompt, courteous, informed responses to all questions regarding City business. Replies, if only to report that inquiries or research are underway and a full response will be forthcoming at a later time, should be made within one working day of the original neighborhood contact.
  • Advance notification of any City-related public works or utility project taking place within or adjacent to a neighborhood (e.g. road paving; water, sewer or drainage work; traffic signal installation or removal; park renovation or substantial maintenance; land purchases, etc.), including the day(s) and probable length of any street closures, utility interruptions, or other adverse impacts on the neighborhood, and the name and phone number of the City representative most knowledgeable and able to immediately answer questions during the course of the work.
  • Notification of the submission of any application for rezoning, zoning or land use variance or exception, Development of Regional Impact (DRI) or Planned Unit Development (PUD) application, or other significant land use action; a clear explanation of the date, time and place of all applicable public hearings and other opportunities for public input on the application; and a clear explanation of the type of testimony that is allowable and relevant from neighborhood organizations and residents.
  • Opportunity for formal input into the annual budget process, including the opportunity to express preferred City government priorities, suggested capital improvement projects, and other statements that fairly represent the opinion of a majority of the neighborhood’s residents.
  • A timely personal response from its district councilperson or that councilperson’s aide to questions directed to the City Council office.
  • The opportunity to participate in the design of publicly-funded projects within or adjacent to the neighborhood, including the opportunity early in the planning process to express neighborhood preferences about choice of location, materials, orientation, size, land use intensity, and other features.

While these rights were intended to empower neighborhood organizations in their interactions with city government, they were not enshrined in the City of Jacksonville Charter or Ordinance Code – and are now a quarter-century old. In May 2019, the Task Force on Safety and Crime Reduction Community Engagement Subcommittee recommended the Neighborhood Bill of Rights “be renewed, revised and reaffirmed to improve community engagement with its local government.” Subcommittee members suggested the COJ “better implement and publicize the Rights so that all citizens will be fully aware of their ability to access government, thereby increasing trust between our citizenry and our government.” Finally, they prioritized assessment of “how our various communities interact with city government to ensure proper services are provided.”

All of these recommendations merit Council adoption – with one addition. The Neighborhood Bill of Rights does not directly address the most significant challenge neighborhoods throughout Jacksonville face: Lack of adequate infrastructure despite promises made decades ago. Additional neighborhood rights could include:

  • Public school facilities with the physical and technological infrastructure necessary to fulfill the Florida constitutional mandate for a “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education”;
  • Well-functioning infrastructure – drainage, energy, parks, roads, sanitation, schools, sidewalks, and water – which supports neighborhood quality of life and economic development;
  • Reliable sources of clean water for drinking and household uses;
  • Access to central sewage systems which promote public and environmental health;
  • Effective stormwater drainage which mitigates flooding without creating visual blight;
  • Installation of sidewalks and non-motorized vehicle lanes to promote pedestrian and bicycle safety.
  • Proximity to safe and well-maintained public parks for recreational opportunities.

In his inaugural address, President Hazouri called for an end to delays in “making the investments in our neighborhoods that have been left behind or left out.” Enhancing the Neighborhood Bill of Rights and placing the revised version in the Charter would be one way for Council members to prevent more postponement.

Ensure Funding in the City of Jacksonville Capital Improvement Program

The 2013-2014 Task Force on Consolidated Government recommended the COJ and relevant independent authorities devote set percentages of their annual capital budgets to addressing unfulfilled promises. However, more than six years after the task force completed its work, City Council still has not incorporated that recommendation into the Charter or Ordinance Code.

That delayed implementation may soon change. At the June 22 meeting of the Special Committee on Social Justice and Community Investment, Committee Co-Chair Matt Carlucci indicated he is drafting legislation for Special Committee consideration to reform the five-year COJ Capital Improvement Program (CIP). If Carlucci proposes to devote specific percentages of the annual CIP and/or independent authority capital budgets to fulfilling the promises of consolidation, that legislation will represent a major step forward for Jacksonville’s policy commitment to infrastructure equality.

While such a CIP policy change would have long-term benefits, Council members can also act in the short-term. When Mayor Curry presents his recommended budget in mid-July, Finance Chair Carlucci and his colleagues will spend the next two months leading the Council review and revision of that proposed fiscal plan – including the COJ’s 2020-2025 capital spending priorities. Through that five-year CIP, Council members can prepare the first installment on the master plan needed to fulfill the promises of consolidation. If interest rates remain low, the economy rebounds when COVID-19 subsides, and the federal government reinforces local financing, the City of Jacksonville could have bonding capacity over the next five years to build or enhance needed sidewalks, roads, drainage, water or sewer projects and other infrastructure improvements in all Jacksonville neighborhoods.

Next page: Identifying dedicated and sustained funding